Thursday, May 24, 2007

Really Alternative Cinema

One of the joys of traveling to parallel worlds is catching up with movies that weren’t greenlighted in your homewhen, or were made by different people. Orson Welles’s Batman and War of the Worlds; Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon Bonaparte; Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen; Ed Wood’s The Ghoul Goes West; Star Wars with Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster; Time After Time with Derek Jacobi and John Hurt; and many others. One of the most interesting in historical terms, though, is Alan Smithee’s 1997 Starship Troopers.

Unlike Paul Verhoeven and Edward Neumeier, writer/director/producer Smithee was not only a huge fan of the novel but a great believer in the idea that films should be as faithful as possible to the source material - as evidenced by his thirteen-hour director’s cut of Atlas Shrugged. It’s clear to see why it appealed to him: to a man who had recorded John Galt’s final speech, Troopers would have seemed so action-packed and non-talky that after he was persuaded to leave out the voice-overs and the introductory quotes at the beginning of each chapter, he reportedly suggested making it a completely silent movie. (Maybe in yet another parallel world, he did exactly that, but I’ve not yet managed to locate a copy.)

Like the book, the film starts with the drop where Dizzy Flores (male, in this version) dies, then flashes back to Johnnie Rico’s school days. It’s rumored that when Smithee came to the line “Carl and I had done everything together in high school”, he began writing scenes which showed exactly that, until the studio warned him that his budget of $95 million would run out long before the boys had finished their freshman year. Somewhat sulkily, he agreed to cut most of this material, except for the classroom scenes, some shots of them in Carl’s lab and Johnnie’s copter, and a sequence where they’re trying on different clip-on earrings before a date.

Only twenty-one minutes later, Johnnie and his fellow MIs are being chewed out by Sergeant Zim at Camp Arthur Currie. A few exciting martial arts sequences follow; then, instead of Verhoeven’s notorious mixed-sex shower scene, we get a scene of a recruit being forcibly scrubbed with floor soap and stiff brushes by his fellow volunteers. Then comes a barracks-room scene of one recruit being branded a liar for having seen a girl, then one of Johnnie sewing his tunic so that it fits more tightly around his, uh, hips. Then the recruits go on a forced march, and are advised to huddle together against the cold. The following scene shows them doing the same, but naked. (Well, not completely. Johnnie kills a rabbit and uses its skin to make moccasins.)

Then it’s back to combat training, where a young man is shot in the ass and becomes the butt of a long string of jokes. This is followed by the first of the floggings, then a scene where Sergeant Zim and the captain wish that they could have been flogged in the former recruit’s place. Then Johnnie himself commits a flogging offence, and Sergeant Zim slips something into his hand and tells him to bite it. More floggings follow.

Perhaps unfortunately, Smithee was never to make the rest of the film, in which Johnnie learns to operate his battlesuit and goes on leave so he can remember what women look like. As the film gone well over budget by this point, the studio ruled that Smithee should follow the example of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and release the first two hours in the hope of recouping enough money to complete Part II.

Unfortunately, right-wing critics slammed the film for what they believed to be its depiction of gays in the military, then a contentious issue in that timeline. The movie failed at the box office, though it attracted a small cult following and eventually broke even thanks to video and DVD sales.

Smithee is said to now be working on a film based on the classic comic-book Toni Gay and Butch Dykeman.


Nicholas Martin said...

I seem to recall a short story I read a coupleof weeks ago that was similar to this. I unfortunately cannot remember the title or author, but it was about an extra dimensional video store that had alterante versions of movies (Welles' original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons being the one that sticks in my head).

Maybe it was by Tim Pratt?

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

I've always been partial to the 1969 John Ford version of Starship Troopers. Granted, the presence of John Wayne as Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois unbalances the narrative, but the spare 103 minute running time snaps along quickly and remains remarkably faithful to the spirit of Heinlein's work. The climactic battle scene in Monument Valley is still a pop-culture reference point nearly four decades later, and I know genre fans who still cheer during Heinlein's brief cameo as Fleet Sergeant Ho. Good stuff. I'm going to have to watch it again tonight.

Adam Lipkin said...

K.N. It likely was Impossible Dreams.

The world of alternate cinema is one tons of potential (and, in fact, has pretty much been mentioned to some extent or other in most alternate world books I've read).

Nicholas Martin said...

@ adam:

The internet seems to compress idea space so that everyone with similar interests all end up thinking about the exact same things at the same time.

Jess Nevins said...

Good grief. I post in my LiveJournal about a fantastic unmade film, get the idea to do a history of unmade or lost films...and find that the idea has, sorta, already migrated to one of my fellow No Fear writers.

We're all on the same wavelength, apparently....